Film and Death On Ice: The Viking (1931)

Just over a week ago the St. John’s harbour, and much of the eastern shore was crowded by sea ice. This invasion is a reminder of the tumultuous relationship that the island has with the great bergs and floes which pass it by. Ice is undoubtedly one of the focal points of Newfoundland tourism. Its rare beauty makes it a mainstay on the province’s postcards. However, it has also been the cause of many disasters off our coast, from the Titanic to the SS Newfoundland. In light of the recent berg-blockade, it is fitting to tell a lesser known disaster on the ice, and the film which was born out of the chilling arctic seascape. It is a story which stretches from Hollywood to the coast of Labrador; however, it has largely been forgotten despite accomplishing a notable first in the Hollywood film industry, and holding a disastrous record which stands to this day.

In the late 1920s Paramount Pictures advanced 100,000 dollars to make a dramatic adventure film off the coast of Labrador called The Viking. This might seem like a strange setting for a Hollywood picture in the era of Douglass Fairbanks and Buster Keaton. However, executives had become enamoured with a documentary about the seal fishermen of Newfoundland and Labrador by a young filmmaker, and adventurer named Varick Frissell. Frissell was a native of New York City who had become obsessed with seeing the world, and making films from an early age. His wealthy parents furnished him with a camera (a rare toy in the early 20th century) and the funds necessary for a life of discovery and excitement. At the time, the outlet for many Americans seeking out stark and vast landscapes was Labrador.

As the Documentary White Thunder (2002, NFB) on the life of Frissell notes, Labrador was the United States’ arctic, a unique vacation for those who could afford to visit it. After hearing a lecture on Labrador by Sir Wilfred Grenfell at Yale university, Frissell knew that this was the place where his love for filmmaking and adventure could be satisfied. His first film, The Lure of Labrador (1928), documents his journey down the Hamilton River. His accomplishments on this trip include the discovery of the wild river of Aboriginal legend, now called the Grenfell river. It was also the first time that the “grand falls” of Labrador had been captured on film. Even after making this film, and another called The Great Arctic Seal Hunt (1928) about Labrador, Frissell felt that he still had not fully captured his northern muse. He travelled to Hollywood to seek the funding necessary to turn his second documentary into a feature length film. After seeing his work, excited executives at paramount agreed to finance the film. However, the desired that it not be a documentary, but instead, tell a story in the epic style that was in fashion.

Frissell hired accomplished director George Melford and cinematographer Alexander Penrod, and took on the position of producer for himself. Their picture would be the first to have sound and dialogue captured on location in a Hollywood feature, and the first sync-sound picture to be produced in Canada. However, this feat is far outshone by the visuals of the film. In an unforgettable scene Frissell captures a mix of actors and local fishermen jumping between sheets of ice, occasionally falling between the cracks, as the ocean churns beneath them. Occasionally swells surge into the frame, completely eclipsing the distant men. Theses shots are, in a word, terrifying. The film will leave you with a host of new phobias, a greater appreciation for the dangerous lifestyle of the sealers of Newfoundland and Labrador, and for the lengths to which Frissell was willing to go to capture the austere beauty of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Viking shows us a part of this province and its history which many are not aware of, and sights which we might never get to see.

Frissell completed filming for The Viking in 1930, and a cut of the film was shown in a nickel theatre in downtown St. John’s. However, Frissell was unsatisfied with the result. Always the documentarian, he felt that the movie needed more footage capturing the arctic seascape. Frissell and film crew set out again on the sealing vessel the SS Viking. He, along with many of the crew and sealers, would never return from this voyage. Near the Horse Islands, just north of the Baie Verte Peninsula, the Viking became trapped in ice. An explosion on board the vessel, which was loaded with dynamite for icebreaking, blew the ship in two pieces. 29 men were killed, including Frissell and the cinematographer Penrod. The disaster still stands as the largest loss of life in the history of filmmaking.

Despite the fatal accident, the picture was released in 1931, with an added introduction by Sir Wilfred Grenfell, the man who had inspired Frissell to capture Labrador on film. In it, Grenfell describes the passion of Frissell for documenting the land that was dear to both of their hearts. In the years that followed all the reels of The Viking were lost. It was not until the 1960’s that a copy of the film would be found in Quidi Vidi village. The film has recently been uploaded to YouTube in its entirety, and in 2002 was the subject of the documentary White Thunder by filmmaker Victoria King. As 2017 looks to be an incredible year for iceberg sightings, with many already crowding the eastern shore, the story of The Viking and its crew is a pertinent reminder of the dangers, and beauty of sea ice.

6 thoughts on “Film and Death On Ice: The Viking (1931)”

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